Throughout March, we’ll be exploring issues that relate to women and feminism, to mark International Women’s Day on the 8th of this month. Specifically, our posts will look at research that addresses bias, in one form or another, in recognition of this year's IWD theme 'Break the Bias'. In her new research, Joanna Syrda explores how the division of domestic labour is affected when a couple has children, finding that parenthood has a ‘traditionalising effect’.
Despite the increasing number of women in the workforce, wives are still typically responsible for the majority of the housework. This gendered division of domestic labour is one of the main contributing factors to ongoing gender inequality.
The typical explanation for this unequal distribution of housework is that men tend to work longer hours and earn higher wages. This is in line with the rational economic approach - the partner with the lower earning potential should focus on domestic chores, to free their higher-earning partner up to focus on work, to maximise the overall household standard of living. This theory isn’t inherently gendered, apart from the fact that women were historically the lower earners.
Following the rationale of this theory, one would expect the balance of domestic labour to shift as more women entered the workforce, worked longer hours, gained higher salaries and so brought home more income. However, this has not been the case. The increases in women’s relative (to their husband’s) income were not followed by a proportional decrease in their relative housework. This was documented and coined by Arlie Hochschild as “Second Shift” in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to this day.
Neutralising the subversion of gender norms
Many gender scholars believe that household behaviour cannot be understood through this simple, rational, but gender-neutral view – where a partner’s contribution to domestic chores is inversely proportional to the income they bring in – as gender operates on so many levels.
Traditional gender identity norms are so entrenched that couples react negatively to a situation where wives earn more than their husbands. The construct of the ‘male breadwinner’ has persisted over hundreds of years and continues to build expectations that men will be the primary income provider in the family and, importantly, that masculinity is highly linked to fulfilling that expectation.
Married couples that fail to replicate that traditional division of income may be perceived – both by themselves and others – to be ‘deviating from the gender identity norm’. So, the theory goes that when men earn less than women, couples ‘neutralise’ this by increasing traditionality through housework. In other words, women do more housework and men do less, as they try to offset this ‘abnormal’ situation by leaning into other conventional gender norms. This is called ‘gender deviance neutralisation’.
This is the opposite of what rational economic theories predict, and so would be a significant contribution to the gender studies/economics landscape if conclusively accepted. In fact, there’s been ongoing sociological research that shows examples of gender deviance neutralisation since the 1990s. However, the evidence is mixed and no consensus has yet emerged as to the relative importance of these explanations.
Parenthood and housework
Against this backdrop, let’s consider the effect of parenthood on the division of housework. The birth of a child increases both the domestic workload and household income pressures. In this case it would be wise for couples to find the most efficient way to manage their time – in the case of relatively higher earning women, you would expect the male partner to assume more of the domestic chores. However, despite the major implications of this event for how couples manage their time, it’s also associated with deeper gendered division of labour.
This is evidently an area of conflict for many spouses, as research from the Institute of Family Studies in the US shows that the most common point of contention among couples with children is the division of chores and responsibilities. The data shows that this is primarily due to the clash between the traditional division of labour along gender lines and the modern reality of working mothers, sometimes earning more than their male partners do.
At this point it’s important to recognise the argument around the ‘specialised division of labour’. That is, there are some domestic tasks (often related to child-rearing) that are specifically suited to men or women. While this may be true in certain cases (for example, breastfeeding) it doesn’t necessarily follow that this should lead to gender-specific housework division - specifically, if the wife is the relatively higher earner, transition to parenthood shouldn’t result in a more traditional division of domestic labour as this wouldn’t improve the household’s overall quality of life. Here it’s also important to note that this research looks at housework specifically defined as “time spent cooking, cleaning, and doing other work around the house”, so tasks that neither gender has an obvious comparative advantage in.
How efficiently spouses divide up their domestic chores will depend then on the strength of traditional gender identity norms. These attitudes aren’t always the same over a lifetime, and becoming a parent can produce substantial changes in the self-identity of women and men, that in turn may modify gender role attitudes.
The traditionalising effect of parenthood
While parenthood could theoretically encourage a more efficient division of labour, in my research I find it generally does not. My findings show that parenthood has a traditionalising effect, meaning that spouses with children tend to revert to traditional gender norms and this is especially visible in couples where wives out-earn the husbands.
Parents exhibit much higher rates of gender deviance neutralisation compared to childless couples. In fact, these effects are so sizeable, that the gender housework gap gets even bigger in the higher range of women’s relative income. In other words, gender deviance neutralisation happens not when wives out-earn husbands, but when mothers out-earn fathers. This is not necessarily an intuitive result, as one could easily argue that the increased financial and domestic demands of having a child might lead to a more purely efficient - and less gendered - division of tasks.
Interestingly, I identified this traditionalising effect only in married parents, and not cohabiting parents, suggesting that the social construct of marriage plays an important role in shaping how we view normative housework and market work division.
Why chores matter
Transition to parenthood brings about more of a change to the division of labour in couples than any other event, like getting married or having more children. The birth of a child increases the time and money demands a couple faces. At the same time, it may strengthen norms regarding gender-typical behaviour or even shift individual gender role attitudes.
This is important, because how couples divide the increased domestic workload after becoming parents will be an important determinant of earnings inequalities between women and men over the course of their lives – a pattern once settled upon is often difficult to renegotiate. On top of this, these patterns may repeat themselves in the lives of their children through the intergenerational transfer of norms. One expectation of the ‘gender revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s was that women’s increased level of employment and earnings would be accompanied by men’s greater participation in domestic activities. Sadly, however, it looks like married men and women – especially married parents – have still not equalised the level of housework they perform, leading many of us to wonder how to restart this ‘stalled revolution’.